In recent years, the idea of “Green Homes” has moved beyond the niche that it once was to the mainstream because of overwhelming evidence that they benefit the homeowners’ pockets, their health and the environment. Homeowners are recognizing that building their home to be more energy efficient and healthier is a wise investment for themselves and the community. Even those who have lived in a home for a long time are having it retrofitted with sustainable features to lower their bills and improve their health. Here is a list of the top 5 features that every Green Home should have. Of course, there is no strict definition of a green home and there is unlimited creativity that can be used to make a home “green,” but these should not be missed.
1) Holistic Approach
The most important “feature” that any green home can have should be included before construction even begins. That is, an integrated, holistic approach that takes every aspect of both sustainable and traditional building knowledge into account. Seeing the building through a wide lens, as an interrelated system in which everything is considered to determine the true performance of the building is crucial to being truly “green.” The whole house approach takes often over-looked aspects into account; construction site sustainability, long-term durability, waste stream, performance monitoring, occupant health and comfort, and carbon footprint, along with the more obvious motives of energy and water efficiency.
Some like to think of each new plot of land for a new building as a small factory where, on average, 22,000 components are needed. Just like real factories are moving towards “lean manufacturing” techniques, which systematically looks at each step of the process and removes any flaws, the ideal green home will have been well thought-out and coordinated. Ideally, the designer would perform a whole-house computer simulation that compares multiple combinations of variables to arrive at the most cost-effective and sustainable solution.
2) Air Infiltration
Heat loss and heat gain are the leading contributors to increased utility bills and decreased building efficiency. When an HVAC system has to work harder to make up for these losses, then even the most efficient system will not operate as effectively as it should. The most reliable way to ensure that you do not have air leakage problems is to hire an Energy Auditor who is a HERS Rater or has a BPI Certificaion, who will perform a blower door test along with a thermal imaging analysis. A blower door test pressurizes the building so that if there are leaks, air will be forced out and the air-tightness can be measured. Thermal imaging allows the contractor to pin-point those leaks with a specialized camera.
Air leaks mostly occur at the joints between materials in the envelope: around windows and doors, around holes drilled for pipes, wires and ducts, and in joints between sheets of plywood. Dense insulation like spray foam helps reduce joint infiltration. All joints need to be sealed with weather stripping, caulk, spray foam or any equivalent product. Air sealing is one of the most significant energy efficiency improvements you can make to your home. Air sealing will not just reduce energy costs, it will also improve your home’s comfort and durability.
3) Indoor Air Quality
Of course, sealing your home air tight can cause as many problems as it solves, thus the need for the integrated approach mentioned earlier. Without the proper ventilation, air-tight buildings can cause mold and sick building syndrome – in fact, according to the EPA, indoor air is often more polluted than outdoor air. This has given rise to the motto among HVAC designers – “build tight, ventilate right.” The theory behind this is that it takes less energy to ventilate a house than it does to supply the additional heating/cooling energy to compensate for air leakage.
There are a couple of other factors that should be considered for proper indoor air quality. Certain products such as paints, solvents, finishes and furnishings can emit pollutants known as Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). There are plenty of brands that have low-VOC rates that do not cost more and are just as durable as the higher-VOC alternatives. In addition, there are several easy steps any one can take to keep a high level of indoor air quality. Simple moisture management, such as fixing leaks and cleaning up spills quickly, is crucial to keeping out mold and other microbial growth. Replacing the air filter in your furnace and air conditioner at the start of the season can ensure that the flow of air is kept at a good rate.
4) ENERGY STAR Lighting and Appliances
On average, appliances account for about 17% of a household’s energy consumption. In 1992 the EPA and DOE created an international standard for energy efficient consumer products. Appliances and other products labeled ENERGY STAR use far less energy than what federal law requires. As of 2008, refrigerators needed to be 20% more efficient and dishwashers need to be 41% more efficient to earn the label. These energy savings can translate into real efficiency gains for homeowners; according to the DOE “last year alone, Americans, with the help of ENERGY STAR, saved enough energy to power 10 million homes and avoid greenhouse gas emissions from 12 million cars – all while saving $6 billion.
5) Energy monitoring
Once the various green features have been coordinated and added to a home, it is still important to track improvements. One of the easiest ways to doe this is with a home energy monitor. These systems measure energy usage and production in real-time, including historical data. By providing consumers with this information, homeowners can get a clear picture of where and when their energy is being used. From appliances to heating and lighting, an energy monitoring system is an important technology to a green home.
These systems are still being developed and new features are continually being added. Some providers allow the consumer to be able to control how and when specific devices use power. In addition, these services are being merged with other technologies, allowing homeowners to control their energy use remotely from their Ipad. Many homeowners are unaware of what’s behind their electricity bill, when they use energy and what sources takes up the most. With energy monitoring systems, homeowners will be able to clearly see their energy use and be able to make educated responses to what was previously a mystery .
Honorable Mention: ENERGY STAR and/or LEED Certification
While not necessarily a feature, having a home certified under a third party verification system can provide many benefits for a homeowner, including higher property values and tax incentives. There are two main certifications that one can seek for their home.
The first is an ENERGY STAR label issued by the EPA. Each ENERGY STAR certified new home is independently verified to be at least 15% more energy efficient than a home built to the 2009 IECC, and features additional measures that deliver a total energy efficiency improvement of up to 30% compared to a typical new home. After construction, the verification must be done by a HERS Rater who has gone through a specific ENERGY STAR training to understand the requirements and methods by which a home can qualify for the label.
The second is a LEED Certification for Homes issued by the Green Building Certification Institute. The LEED for Homes Certification is given to homes that have been designed and constructed to meet the standards set forth by the USGBC. LEED for Homes is more difficult to achieve because it covers many different areas of sustainability including water efficiency, indoor air quality, types of materials used, land use and landscaping, and educating the homeowner of the green features, in addition to energy efficiency.
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